And then, the sevens of years, or weeks of years, were also counted by sevens, resulting in a period of 49 years in length – a Jubilee period:
Count off seven sabbaths of years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbaths of years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to his own property. If you sell land to one of your countrymen or buy any from him, do not take advantage of each other. You are to buy from your countryman on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And he is to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what he is really selling you is the number of crops. Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the LORD your God.
Interpretations – 50 years vs. 49 years
There’s more than one way that present-day scholars interpret this. It can be a bit confusing that it first talks about a 49-year period, but then goes on to specify that the Jubilee year is the 50th year. Because of this, some have taken the Jubilee period to be 50 years in length rather than 49. But a 50-year Jubilee period would cause some difficulty for the ongoing 7-year Sabbath cycles, interrupting their continuity. The best way to make sense of these instructions is to take the overall period as repeating every 49 years just as it says, with the 49th year being the final Sabbath year of the cycle. Then the following year, the Jubilee year, is the 50th year from the perspective of the cycle that was just completed, while at the same time being the first year of the new 49-year cycle that’s just beginning.
I find support for this way of counting it in the instructions for the timing of the Feast of Weeks with respect to Passover. Leviticus 23:15-16 says, “From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the LORD.”
Just as these instructions take the 50th day Feast of Weeks to be the first day of the following week, it makes sense to take the 50th year Jubilee to be the first year of the following week of years.
I think some hold to the idea of a 50-year cycle mainly because they’ve adopted a 7000-year view of history, and they want to be able to divide these 7000 years evenly into Jubilees. This works for a 50-year Jubilee, while it doesn’t for 49. But as we dig deeper, we’ll discover an alternative 7000-year plan – one which is actually supported by astronomical evidence, and which is consistent with a 49-year Jubilee period.
Interpretations – year 49 Jubilee vs. year 50 Jubilee
Among those who take the Jubilee period to be 49 years in length, there are also two variants. One interpretation takes the Jubilee year to be year 49, identical to the final Sabbath year of the cycle. But Leviticus 25:11 says, “The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines.” I can’t see any way to reconcile the year-49 Jubilee view with the specific instructions to the contrary that we see here. The other interpretation – the one which seems to fully acknowledge all the details – is to take the Jubilee year to indeed be year 50 with respect to the preceding Jubilee period, while at the same time being year 1 of the following period.
But there is a reason that some scholars prefer to view the Jubilee year as the 49th-year Sabbath year. It’s an issue of the planting of crops. In the Sabbath year the people of Israel were told to refrain from planting: “During the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused.” Exodus 23:11
This command is to apply every seven years, which includes the 49th. And then in the Jubilee year they’ve been told a similar thing: “The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.” Leviticus 25:11-12
So if we take this all at face value, with the 49th year being a Sabbath, and the 50th year being the Jubilee, it means two years in a row of no planting. To some scholars this seems unlikely to have actually worked in practice, so they reinterpret it. By making the 49th and 50th years one and the same, there’s now only a single year of no planting, which seems more plausible.
But there are three verses in Leviticus that I don’t think these scholars have noticed. In Leviticus 25:20-22 the Lord says, ‘You may ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?” I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.’
The land will yield enough for three years. Rephrasing it a bit, it’s saying, “I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that you will eat from the old crop in the seventh and eighth years, and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.” This promise is meant to apply to every Sabbath year, so what do we get if we jump ahead by six Sabbath years? Just adjusting the numbers forward by 42, we get, “I will send you such a blessing in the forty-eighth year that you will eat from the old crop in the forty-ninth year (the Sabbath) and the fiftieth/first year (the Jubilee), and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the second year comes in.”
Yes, it is an amazing promise. But so was God’s promise to deliver His people from Egypt, and He did that. And His promise to deliver enemy after enemy into their hands when they entered the promised land, and He did that. And His provision for them in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. God kept His people alive not only for the original 2 years in transit, but even for the extended time of forty years they had to spend in the wilderness as punishment for their failure to believe what He said.
When God did these amazing things for His people – when they saw His hand of power with their own eyes, it did significant things for their faith. Though there were some who, just as we see in our own time, were stubborn in rebellious attitudes and persistent unbelief, those who had eyes to see had the opportunity to come to truly know Him for who He is, the Lord God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe that’s exactly why God chose to put His people in impossible situations and then miraculously deliver them. To grow their faith. To let them come to truly know Him for who He is.
God wanted this understanding of who He is to be passed on from generation to generation but, as someone has wisely stated, “God has no grandchildren.” God knew that each person would ultimately need to make his own choice, to either believe Him or turn away from Him. They would hear their parents’ and grandparents’ accounts of the amazing things God had done in the past. But to build in them a strong faith, God wanted them also to be eyewitnesses of His hand of provision. This is what God was building into their lives through these Sabbath year and Jubilee regulations. An opportunity for every generation to choose to trust in His promise, and to see Him come through with bountiful provision.
Yes, it is an amazing promise, this promise of God’s bountiful provision. But it had to be. If it had been something easy, something that happened every day, they would have just brushed it off as nothing, chalking it up to the “laws of nature” at work or congratulating themselves for their own good work and planning – You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” Deuteronomy 8:17
So I believe what we read here at face value is exactly what God meant to say. “During the forty-ninth year let the land lie unplowed and unused.” And “the fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you, so don’t sow your fields.” And “I will send you such a blessing in the forty-eighth year that the land will yield enough for three years.”
Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.
All they needed to do was believe what He said. Then He would have shown them His amazing provision. And as a result they would have trusted Him all the more. And things could have gone so much better for them.
Exactly the same is true for us today.